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Richard 'Sandy' Beach, an icon of Alcoholics Anonymous, spread a message of hope to thousands

Richard John Beach was a speaker for Alcoholics Anonymous and a retired lobbyist.
Published Oct. 3, 2014

TAMPA — In Alcoholics Anonymous, everybody knows everybody on a first-name basis. People in AA keep a low public profile, lest a fall from sobriety reflect badly on the program.

Popularity, however, has created exceptions to the rule. Most people know the last names of AA co-founders Bill W. and "Dr. Bob" — Wilson and Smith. On the speaking circuit, from small meetings to big conventions, certain names carry enough cachet that their anonymity fades away. And audiences play recordings of their talks the way others listen to a favorite album.

Thus tens of thousands of AA members knew that the last name of popular speaker Sandy B. was actually Beach. A good chunk might know that he lived in Florida or that he had been a fighter pilot in the Marines.

Mostly they knew his messages about developing a spiritual life beyond abstinence, about letting go of control and tapping into what he called "the magic" they had once sought through alcohol. They knew his self-deprecating humor, which made the often-tough rhetoric easier to swallow.

Mr. Beach, a retired lobbyist for credit unions whose tireless efforts on behalf of AA made him one of its most recognizable names, died Sunday during an AA meeting in Tampa. He was 83.

The man, who had described himself as shy, tried to cap his speaking engagements to 26 weeks a year but often exceeded that limit. In a quietly spellbinding way, interweaving AA history and his own, Mr. Beach always came back to the program's fundamentals as outlined in its literature: Alcoholics Anonymous, known as the Big Book, and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, or the "12 & 12."

He believed emphatically in AA's 12 steps, especially the first one about admitting powerlessness over alcohol.

"The point of the first step, quite frankly, is to convince you that your situation is a lot worse than you think it is," he said in a 1994 talk. Consequently, it is the only step "you have to take 100 percent."

" 'Almost' doesn't cut it. Almost getting sober is very much like almost having a parachute after the plane gets blown up and you're up in the air."

Richard John Beach was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1931, the son of an engineer. He had his first drink at a college mixer, where he found alcohol made him feel more sociable. After graduating from Yale University, he joined the Marine Corps. His assignments included Florida, Virginia and Japan, and he taught pilots the bruising art of landing on aircraft carriers.

Mr. Beach spent close to a decade in the Marines, leaving as a captain, his family said. He stopped drinking Dec. 7, 1964 (Pearl Harbor Day, he reminded audiences). He lived in the Washington, D.C., area and worked for the Credit Union National Association.

His marriage to Barbara Platt, with whom he raised six children, lasted 17 years.

His activism in AA increased over time. At a 1976 convention in Palm Desert, Calif., to uproarious laughter, Mr. Beach compared his old lifestyle with trying to swim while carrying a heavy rock. His "Drop the Rock" talk, still famous in AA circles, launched a parallel unpaid career as a sought-after speaker.

"He could take the most complex thoughts you could come up with and distill it in simple terms," said Chris B., 53, of Tampa, whose last name is withheld to protect his anonymity, as with other AA members who were interviewed.

Mr. Beach went on to speak at international AA conventions and in several European countries.

He retired to a Bayshore Boulevard condominium in 1995, and stayed in shape by running up and down its 20 floors five times before bed.

Mr. Beach sponsored other men in AA who relied on him for steady guidance.

"There were times when the Marine came out, the salty language," said Dick C., a 63-year-old developer who was mentored by Mr. Beach. "He'd say, 'What part of the blankety-blank do you not blankety-blank understand?'

"Then he'd sit back and smile. He wasn't mad. He was just getting your attention."

Recent years included challenges, both emotional and physical. In 2010, daughter Barbara Hamburg, 48, was found bludgeoned to death outside her Madison, Conn., home. Another daughter, Catherine Barrett, 52, died three months later of liver disease, Mr. Beach's family said.

Mr. Beach also suffered chronic pain and congestive heart failure. He used a walker, then a wheelchair. He fell in September and spent weeks in the hospital.

Another AA member, Randy M., drove Mr. Beach to a 7:30 p.m. meeting Sunday at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church. Mr. Beach had started the step study and speaker meeting a decade or so ago. As the meeting started, Randy, 54, fetched Mr. Beach a cup of black coffee. Group members read AA's Preamble, which spells out the program's mission and its steps, then took turns reading from the 12 & 12.

"I asked him if he was okay," Randy said. "He looked at me and said, 'Thanks for bringing me to the meeting, buddy.' "

Moments later, Randy said, he heard a slight gasp from Mr. Beach, whose head had slumped over onto the table. A member who is also a nurse rushed over to check his pulse. Another member, a physician, checked the carotid artery.

Mr. Beach was declared dead at the scene. His friends couldn't help but notice that he had died with his head on page 23 of the 12 & 12, from which the group had been reading.

The passage covers the first step.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

(Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correct the name of the city where Mr. Beach's daughter, Barbara, was killed.)

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